Cyrano de Bergerac, 109 years old, and Speech and Debate, as fresh and terse as texting, are both romantic comedies about verbal expression. Cyrano does it the old way: Big-nosed boy loves beautiful gal, who loves young hunk but wants him to wax eloquent like his big-nosed pal. War and an old lech with eyes for the girl intervene to guarantee that everybody loses and nobody gets laid. Rostand expends a lot of words on this tale, scripting a Gilded Age verbal equivalent for the 17th-century setting’s ruffles and frills. Others love it; it’s always been too rococo for my taste. Kevin Kline panaches his way through the title role with ease and delight, but director David Leveaux’s drab clumsiness is no substitute for the old-style gilding. Jennifer Garner, as Roxane, displays a sparky comic vivacity in the first half, but the second finds her stranded, with neither the emotional nor the vocal technique for its somber scenes.
Nothing’s somber in Speech and Debate, Stephen Karam’s account of three small-town high-school misfits banding together to battle sexual predators and other kinds of manipulative adults, along with their own pubescent confusions. Funny and alert to today’s world, staged peppily by Jason Moore with four smart performers, S&D would show more than just promise if Karam hadn’t pushed all his characters toward sitcom absurdity, till what’s been terse becomes drawn-out and unfunny. Next to most new plays, or the old hokeyness of Cyrano, S&D looks wildly young—but if you put it next to Wedekind’s Spring’s Awakening, the musical version of which is playing nearby, S&D itself looks a tad old-fashioned and hokey.